Saturday, February 28, 2009

Leonardo da Vinci and Productivity (Michelle)

Madame Mental Multivitamin has once again posted a very thought-provoking article, this time about the stultifying way in which our culture views procrastination. If you've ever wondered why the novel isn't proceeding faster, what your "useless" work really contributes to society, why other people seem to be able to churn out work at prodigious rate . . . please read it.

This quote, for example, resonates all too well with me:

The rhetoric of anti-procrastination — constructed by imperialists, religious zealots, and industrial capitalists [Isn't it great how these our are out post-modern vampires? Bring them into an argument and, ZING, you've won! Not that I feel much sympathy for any of these categories, but still...] — had become internalized. We no longer need to be told that to procrastinate is wrong. We know we are sinners and are ashamed. What can we do but work harder?

Like the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, we live our lives with regret for what we have not done — or have done imperfectly — instead of taking satisfaction with what we have done, such as, in Coleridge's case, founding English Romanticism in his youth and producing, throughout his life, some of the best poetry and literary criticism ever composed, including his unfinished poem "Kubla Khan." But that was not enough; always, there was some magnum opus that Coleridge should have been writing, that made every smaller project seem like failure, and that led him to seek refuge from procrastinator's guilt in opium.

W.A. Pannapacker (fantastic name!) tries to poke some holes in the traditional view of Leonardo da Vinci as a "procrastinator" and "underachiever" to show how important "procrastination" --- call it rather incubation, or contemplation --- is to the pursuit of good work, not to mention truth, beauty, and all those other embarrassing transcendentals. He has some particularly interesting comments on Leonardo's notebooks and the value of keeping commonplace books in general.

Probably the only wise thing my senior-year English teacher ever said to me was: "A mystic is someone who wastes time before God." The idea is not unrelated.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sandy: A Recantation (Jillian)

I spend a fair amount of time at UNL, despite the fact that I graduated in May. There is something about it that spells home to me, and its hidden nooks and woody areas provide a retreat from my not-so-quiet job. If you've ever been to UNL, you've probably walked through the "Sculpture Garden", the area of which is merely sprinkled with a collection of modern statuary. One of these is Richard McDermott Miller's "Sandy: in Defined Space", or as I often dismissed it: "Girl in a Box." When Michelle visited me last week, I have to say what came out of my mouth was an arbitrary "I hate it." And yet, in almost five years, I'd never really looked at her. And for a writer to have never looked deep on a piece of art… well… it's silly.

The statue, as you can see, is a naked girl perched in one of two little boxes. On campus it is located in front of a boxy-looking Art building (Woods Hall) - not exactly in the middle of campus foot traffic. And yet, she's always made me uncomfortable… for obvious reasons. When I see nude sculptures - particularly modern ones - I tend to be nervous. At first glance, "Sandy" is trapped in the box. I always detected a thread of womanizing sentiment from it, especially since, not twenty feet away to the north there is another sculpture of a woman's backside, as if the rest of her is buried just below the soil. I recoil. I cannot abide the objectification of women.

After my dismissive comment about hating "Sandy", I started thinking and really looking at her… and the silly fears I had about her began to fade. First of all - yes, she's nude, but why is she nude? Is it any worse than Michaelangelo's David? The nudity, I decided is only a small part of it. In this case, it is to measure an unhindered spirit, protected inside the little space and concealing nothing. Further, she isn't trapped. There is no look of terror or despair on her face - nor is she looking out at me or any passersby with a silent plea for help. In fact, she is glancing off into space, at the foot she has planted up on one of the panels. It is a deep, pensive look - neither smiling nor frowning. Inside herself. She lets one hand dangle free. She does not grasp for an invisible door because she is free. She has made a choice between this box and the box beside it. She has made this space "defined". She is not, I am confident to say, associated with the one submerged in the soil a few feet away.

It is amazing how much I am still learning… by seeing and thinking about the possibilities… imagining her to be a character with feelings and choices and a name instead of an object made of metal! Meanings inside meanings… the perpetual nesting doll! That is art!

Sandy - with the Sheldon Art Museum to the south of her

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Botanical Inspiration (Maren)

As Spring approaches (oh, please say that Spring approaches!), my mind is turning more and more to garden planning. I keep turning over in my mind the different things I would like to plant this year, and it turns out that a lot of these have their inspiration in literature. I want to plant blackberry bushes because they appear in The Wind in the Willows. I want to plant feverfew because it appears in Dealing with Dragons. I want to plant lavender because Harriet Vane's potpurri smells of lavender in Busman's Honeymoon. Almost every plant imaginable has some significance in some work of literature, and is therefore tinged with meaning.

On the one hand, this meaning seems as if it must come from the work of literature, right? I mean, my response to feverfew very clearly comes from Dealing with Dragons. That's undeniable.

At the same time, however, does our response to roses come from the way they are used in literature, or does literature merely reflect the way we feel about roses? Would Beauty and the Beast speak to us in the same way if Beauty's father had picked a buttercup or a daisy? There is something serious and complex about a rose that makes the Beast's rage somehow comprehensible, even if we do not understand it.

In Hamlet, when Ophelia drowns under the willow tree, somehow this seems to make sense (and not just because willows grow near water). There is something melancholy about willows, beautiful as they are. Even The Wind in the Willows has something of this sadness in its nostalgic tone, as bright and playful a story as it is.

The role played by flora in literature illustrates a give and take between nature and art. The natural world and the artistic one each lend themselves to one another in such a way that a person can never be absolutely certain whether meaning is bestowed by art or whether it belonged, somehow, to nature in the first place.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Chickens in Sweaters (Michelle)

Chickens in sweaters are the subject of this Daily Telegraph article. It's not as loopy as it sounds, actually, because these animals are being rescued from egg-production farms and genuinely need the extra warmth because they're balding.

Still, I doubt that the stripes and Christmas-themed patterned are strictly necessary. But if I had to knit tons of chicken sweaters, I'd probably try to make it fun for myself.

This picture reminds me of an illustration from Jerry Pinkney's The Talking Eggs.

Letters to a Young Poet (Michelle)

I recently read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet for the first time. I liked it quite a lot, though I do think it's important to feel free to disagree with Rilke...he is rather prone to pontification, which is not completely helpful for the artistic life in my opinion. But there is quite a lot of rich material for reflection, and he embraces the basic solitude of human life in some interesting ways. He sees a individual's interior almost as a landscape to be explored.

I particularly enjoyed this passage:

We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are OUR OWN terrors. If it has precipices, they belong to us. If dangers are present, we must try to love them. And if we fashion our life according to that principle, which advises us to embrace that which is difficult, then that which appears to us to be the very strangest will become the most worthy of our trust, and the truest...Why should you want to exclude any anxiety, any grief, any melancholy from your life, since you do not know what it is that these conditions are accomplishing in you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where everything comes from and where it is headed? You do know that you are in a period of transition and wish for nothing as much as to transform yourself.

This also reminds me of something Victor Hugo said: "There is one spectacle greater than the sea; that is the sky. There is one spectacle greater than the sky; that is the interior of the human soul."

Sorry I don't have page numbers and editions for these quotes, but I'm traveling and don't have my library with me.

Anyway, happy exploring!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Inspiration (Michelle)

This from Billy Burke, who plays Charlie Swan in the Twilight movie:

Q. Who or what inspires you?

A. Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. Seriously, I don’t mean to take the piss out of this question but as I see it, inspiration is a completely subjective concept. Anyone who says that they are consistently inspired by anything, will ultimately end up a liar. Inspiration by nature, is an accident. It happens when you least expect it and with any luck, when you most need it. Shame on me if I ever put the responsibility to inspire me on anyone else’s shoulders.

Just one man's opinion, of course, but interesting.

Monday, February 9, 2009

In Our Time (Michelle)

In Our Time is a BBC Radio 4 program hosted by Melvyn Bragg. Each week, they assemble three or four experts on a given topic and let them talk about it for an hour. Topics range from "The Physics of Time" to "The Library at Nineveh," "The Sassanian Empire," and "The Fisher King." Yep, yet again, all hail the BBC.

I have a low-grade addiction to the program, meaning that I subscribe to the podcasts and they collect in my iTunes folder until I get sick and decide to listen to them, at which point I learn many, many cool things and wonder why I don't listen to them more often.

This week's program is about the Brothers Grimm, so I thought it might be of interest to the mythopoetic among us. I might even listen to it soon, even though I'm completely healthy!! You can download the program for free from iTunes, or you can go to the program website and click on "Listen to the latest edition." You can also browse around the archives, which is good fun.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Trompe l'Oeil (Michelle)

Well, I have no idea how to pronounce it, and only recently learned how to spell it, but I have trompe l'oeil on the mind --- i.e., the artistic style which tries to make a flat painting look 3D and real. For example, this "dome" is painted on a flat ceiling in Gozo Cathedral, Malta.

I've been thinking about this because I recently spent yet another magic morning in the library doing research for the novel, stressing out about historical realism.

As I was walking out of the library, I thought of another metaphor to add to my previous discussion of the problem. It's like trompe l'oeil. Think about it: a representational painting creates the illusion that you are seeing into space (the much-vaunted "picture window"), but at bottom it is still just an arrangement of lines and shapes and colors on a flat canvas. Trompe l'oeil is the most extreme example of this principle, striving for an illusion that borders on trickery.

It's the same with historical writing: I want to make my reader think (s)he's seeing into history --- and to do so I'd better look at history pretty darn closely and replicate it as nearly as I can --- but the very nature of my project is illusion and craft. That's the nature of the beast.

And aren't the best stories, that pull us in and wrap us up, a form of trompe l'oeil? Why do we cry when Romeo and Juliet die, if there's not a part of us that thinks they seem real?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Snakes and Salamanders (Michelle)

Forget giant prehistoric salamanders! How about this AP report of giant prehistoric snakes?

I love the tone of this article, which is similar to an eleven-year-old gushing about how really, really, big these snakes are. Bigger than a bus! No, they could eat a cow! Man, you would be toast if you met one of these guys. And dude, what if they got on a plane???

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Problem of Place (Maren)

Every writer has heard the advice "write what you know," but sometimes it can be a difficult thing to know precisely how to do that. Right now, I'm having a difficult time writing a scene that takes place in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. The Shrine is somewhere that I was taken frequently when I was in preschool, and it is somewhere that I went a lot during college as well. It had a formative influence on me in a lot of ways, and it also seems to have had a formative influence on the character I'm writing about. It is an important place for the story I'm writing, and I want to convey the sense of reality it has for me, and for my protagonist.

Unfortunately, I'm stumped by this problem. When I write the phrase, "He walked into the Shrine," I know exactly what I mean. I know what my character is seeing, smelling, hearing, and feeling. Thinking about walking into the Shrine has a very tangible familiarity for me that it of course doesn't have for everyone, and I'm uncertain how to convey that. The problem is really two-fold. One the one hand, how do I convey the concreteness of a place without falling into excessive description? Similarly, how do I convey the intense familiarity that a place can have for a person?

It may turn out to be a problem without a solution and I may have to sacrifice sense of place and sense of familiarity for the sake of the storytelling, but I hope I won't have to. Only time will tell. . . .

Puppies and Flowers (Michelle)

I have mixed feelings about this blog, which is inevitable given how mixed its content is, but I've finally decided to post it for your consideration. It's called "Puppies and Flowers: ...For when you need to think of something else in a hurry," and it does what it says on the tin. It's a collection of random photos, news stories, videos, and links. I stumbled on it one day when searching for photos of, I think, Anglo-Saxon jewels.

It has a pretty strong post-modern bent, with a lot of interest in advertising as art, and there are a number of posts that I'm not comfortable with at all. But it's a place to go, well, when you need to think of something else in a hurry. In part, the fact that it often does differ so markedly from my own sensibility makes it a fresh voice when I'm stagnating.

Some recent posts:


to a blog by three people who write, for anyone else who wants to write. It's a cruel world for creators, and here we promise support, whimsy, and curiosity that will hopefully keep your pen moving and keyboard tapping!

To read more about why Daedalus Notes exists, click